Lessons From the Cicadas

It has been 221 years since two different broods of cicadas – the 2-inch long, winged, large-eyed insects – have emerged from underground at the same time across portions of the United States. Broods XIX and XIII haven’t buzzed and clicked above ground simultaneously since 1803; creating sounds that could reach volumes similar to that of a vacuum cleaner or siren.

With the passage of the Fair Housing Act, it has been 56 years since racially-restrictive clauses in property deeds – documented oaths to bar non-white Durhamites citizens from owning residential properties, from visiting public amenities, or even from final resting places in certain cemeteries – have been written and legally enforced, yet their impact and legacy remain. 

Projects across the United States have begun to unearth and document these “hidden monuments.” Hacking into History (HIH), a community-driven project tells the story and impact of racially restrictive agreements that are embedded in property deeds in Durham, North Carolina. Since 2020, we have been transcribing deeds from the Registry of Deeds in search of racial covenants. 

As these deeds come to the surface like the emergence of the cicadas, the way they look and sound are not pleasant or comfortable for many. 

We have held multiple community workshops and we meet monthly as a community of practice to unearth and unpack these jarring documents. In the beginning many believed that wiping these racially discriminating clauses from the deeds was the only corrective measure. However, as a collective we came to see that robs us of a learning about the impact of the racial covenants. Erasure serves the comfort of those the covenants were designed to privilege, but it does nothing to correct the harmful generational impact the covenants had on nonwhite Durham residents.  Reckoning with the racial covenants allows us to better understand our present day landscape with regards to access, housing, and wealth. 

What the cicadas teach us

Over the years, we have collectively learned so much about the impacts of these racial covenants. The learnings are both personal and community wide. Together, we have interrogated our internal discomforts and held space for understanding with regard to equity to emerge. Lately in the news, there has been much chatter about people bracing for the discomfort of the emerging broods. I started wondering if there were similar lessons from the mass emergence of Broods XIII and XIX of cicadas for our Hacking into History community. Nature offers so many insights, so I decided to search for the lessons from the cicadas. 

Here is some of what I found: 

  • Be patient with ourselves in the midst of change.
    • It took time for our community of practice to grow in understanding and trust. 
  • Find a safe space to tackle hard things.
    • We hold safe space for people to process this information.
  • Leave behind what no longer serves you, like an exoskeleton.
    • Release antiquated ideas.
  • Make noise.
    • Make noise about our learning. That noise can attract allies, support, and community.
  • Not everyone will appreciate our sound, and that’s fine.
    • Our sound has a purpose.
  • Shifting shape makes room for expansion and growth.
    • We have shifted from the discomfort and desire for erasure to ‘truth-telling’ and reckoning. This new shape allows space for conversations and actions towards remedy that does not erase the experiences of those harmed by the racialized covenants. 
  • Strength in community.
    • Our community of practice, reminds us that there is strength in collective knowledge and understanding.

Tia Hall is a Human-Centered Design Facilitator, Hacking Into History project team member, and the Managing Member of Yinsome Group LLC.